Medicine and Sickness, Heaven and Hell

“Medicine and sickness heal each other. The whole world is medicine.” —

Blue Cliff Record, Case 87

In this week’s Dharma talk, I mentioned a parable that’s been on my mind lately. I don’t know its origin — I’ve heard different versions, some attributing it to the Zen or Taoist traditions, but I haven’t been able to find its source, and I don’t think it matters. Here’s the version I discussed:

In Hell, everyone is starving, even though they’re all sitting at dinner tables laden with food. The problem is, they have chopsticks that are three feet long, and that’s all they’re allowed to use, so while they can pick up the food, they can’t get it to their mouths. They’re eternally hungry at an eternal feast.

In Heaven, the conditions are exactly the same as in Hell, but no one is hungry. Everyone uses their long chopsticks to feed other people, and so everyone is being fed. They’re eternally feasting at an eternal feast.

Both realms are where we live, but much of the time it’s not obvious to us. One example that presents itself to us every day now, in this time of plague, is why we should wear a mask. The current medical consensus is that while masks are somewhat effective at preventing us from being infected with Covid, they’re much more effective at preventing us from infecting other people if we have the virus. If we’re only concerned about our own safety, we might be careless about masking. If our concern is to keep everyone safe, no matter how safe we feel, we’ll naturally put a mask on. When we try to protect everyone, motivated by compassion, rather than trying to protecte ourself, motivated by fear, we all keep one other safe.

This applies to much more than health precautions in a pandemic.

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